I have seen the future, and I have to be honest, it’s kind of silly. In early January the city of Las Vegas hosted the annual Consumer Electronics Show. For $300 bucks you could attend the three days of seminars, exhibits and conferences designed to highlight the latest and the brightest innovations in the technology industry. There were 4,500 companies in attendance showing off everything from plant-based foods to self-driving cars to artificial intelligence to virtual reality to ultra high-definition televisions, and just about everything in between.
People working in the technology industry think that it’s their job to create a product that does something, and then try to find a use for it later. “Ballie” debuted at this year’s CES, a robotic orb that rolls around, following you and trying to convince you to resist the urge to kick it 30 yards for a field goal. It has a camera to take selfies of you clipping your toenails, or it might talk to you and try to get to know you better. A tweet from Samsung says that the device “understands you, supports you and reacts to your needs.”
Which sounds like the same sort of thing I would slam my front door on an insurance salesman for saying. Or it could be your new fitness assistant, meaning that it will find a body-positive way to tell you that you are still fat. You can use it as a mobile interface, to close your curtains for you, or start your oven, or get your Roomba to quit goofing off and get back to work, or to tell your refrigerator that it’s still fat. I’ve been waiting a long time for this day to roll around, only to have it possibly roll away from me again.
The irony is that because of technology no one goes out anymore, they just sit at home and watch Netflix and order from Grubhub.com, while their self-driving car goes out and enjoys a night on the town. It’s a lonely life. So now technology is left trying to fill the void of its own making. Designers are falling all over themselves trying to invent robots that will do useful things for us AND keep us company. Programmers, if you’re out there, I can’t imagine having any companion that I don’t constantly argue with. You should build into the algorithm the ability to push my buttons after I push its button. “Wow, look at you, you turned me on,” my robot says to me sardonically. I reply, “Yeah, well, let’s get back to how stupid you are, for something that’s supposed to have super-human intelligence. I can’t believe you think ‘The White Album’ is better than ‘Rubber Soul.’ They couldn’t even come up with a title for the album, only a color.” And we go back and forth on a number of other topics before we break for coffee. I can just picture myself at the CES wandering around the exhibits with my robot to keep me company.
We stop at a booth where the folks at Charmin have rolled out a contraption that fetches you a toilet paper roll via your Bluetooth device, should you run out at the most inopportune moment, provided you happen to have your Bluetooth device with you, your arms are long enough to reach the bathroom door and you can get over the shrieks of laughter coming from Alexa, Siri and Cortana. There are a lot of “smart home” products on display this year. Privacy is a big concern, and manufacturers don’t want you to think that your toilet paper robot could be hacked into by someone who will teach your cat to speak Russian while you’re sitting helplessly on the toilet.
My companion robot is starting up with me again. “You really think that ‘99’ from ‘Get Smart’ is better-looking than ‘Mary Ann?’ They couldn’t even come up with a name for the character, only a number.” I defend my choices while we wait for plant-based hamburgers to come out for lunch.
Back on the floor there is a motor-assisted e-bike you can ride on top of water that uses a lithium-ion battery and costs about $7500 bucks. It goes about 14 MPH, and you can peddle it into the middle of the lake for about one hour before the battery dies and you have to start waving your arms to be rescued. Thank god this thing was not around in the time of Jesus. “LOOK! Jesus is walking on water! It’s a miracle!” “Yeah, that’s nice but look at that dude over there- he’s got a water bike! THAT’S COOL!”
I turn around, and where’s my little electronic friend? Of course my companion robot couldn’t resist checking out the new model at his manufacturer’s booth and has a few choice words. “So, you’re the next-gen model of me, huh? Is that logo on your chest what you call ‘body art?’ Not one for subtlety, are we. And what is that god-forsaken music you’re playing? When I was your version we had a thing called melody. You should try some REAL music.” Some things just can’t be upgraded, I guess. We end up being escorted out by security after my companion robot gets into a contretemps with Ballie and throws it into the fountain at the Bellagio. Ballie gets the last laugh just before it hits the water when it yells, “YOU THROW LIKE A GIRL!”
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